Singapore has been a “Chinese republic” for a long time. The notion that our natural place in the world is to be part of a Greater Malaya is little more than romantic fiction, not supported by our history. Post-independence Malaysian political rhetoric may attempt this narrative, but it doesn’t mean it’s true.
Have I gotten your attention yet?
Good. Of course I am not about to assert something as simplistic as that — that Singapore is a Chinese republic; partly I’m just out to get your attention, but partly too, it is intended as a dramatic counterfoil to the Malayan fiction.
This post is precipitated by a comment left by Anony on 5 July 2010 at 09:07h on the post Beyond the crooked bridge, but is not a direct response to it. What he said merely triggered something I’ve been thinking about for some time. Anony wrote:
In Mahathir’s mind as well as those with pro-Malay sentiments, they still regard Spore as an annex to their motherland.
It just brings up a very glaring contrast for Sporeans & for myself whenever Mahathir speaks about asserting more pro-Malaysian pressure on us that Spore has changed a lot in terms of racial composition with a different culture taking root with the high influx of China & India immigrants who have no historical baggage towards Malaysia or share no common interests.
In a nutshell, my argument here is that (a) modern Singapore has not changed a lot; (b) but that does not mean we are similar to or that we remain similar to Malaysia, because (c) Singapore has always been different. We only appear to have changed when we implicitly imagine British Malaya as a kind of historical starting point, but to use that as a starting point is total fiction.
British Malaya is not a valid starting point for where Singapore ‘was’.
What do I mean by British Malaya as a starting template? It is to assume that the first building block (and thus the determining pivot for all future) is a Malay sultanate, complete with a picture of innocence and timelessness. Then comes a layer of British influence, reshaping the political economy, but at the same time making the British sphere of influence look inwards to itself, cutting off links with the rest of the Southeast Asian archipelago. This is followed by immigration of southern Chinese and South Indians, who acknowledge the primacy of Malay language, culture and its political institutions, with everybody living harmoniously — what I call the Malayan dream.
First of all, Singapore was never part of British Malaya, which immediately renders inapplicable the above as a starting template. Some Malaysians will doubtless remind us that prior to 1819, Singapore island with its handful of fishing villages was part of the Johore-Riau Sultanate, in an attempt to lock in a certainty hierarchy for all future Singapore-Malaysia relations and Chinese-Malay relations.
Frankly, this is as relevant to present-day affairs as the fact that the Dutch bought Manhattan island from a Native American tribe, or that the Brunei Sultan once had suzerainty over the present-day Malaysian state of Sarawak, the Moro Sultanate (now part of the Philippines) had control over large parts of the present-day Malaysian state of Sabah, or that until 1909, when the Siamese king signed them away in a treaty with the encroaching British, he was the overlord over the present-day Malaysian states of Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu.
If the prior overlordship of the Siamese king has no significance today, nor bring any expectation to bear on Malaysian-Thai relations, then there is no case to suggest that the history prior to Stamford Raffles’ 1819 and 1824 treaties with the Johore-Riau sultanate should partly determine present day Singapore-Malaysia relationships.
Singapore becoming more Chinese and Indian?
The second point I wish to address is mirrored in anony’s comment: the idea that Singapore is being sinicised or indianised in a way that, regrettably, takes us away from our history. Implied in that, of course, is that the reference history should be the British Malayan one, which I have described above and noted its historical inapplicability to Singapore. Its modern manifestation is the Malayan dream: that of native-born Chinese and Indians living peacefully alongside, but slightly subordinate to, Malays, with priority given to Malay interests and institutions.
Before I commence on the major rebuttal of that, I’d just like to say: this is too romantic by half. I doubt if anyone can point to any prolonged period when the Malayan shangri-la ever existed, even in Malaya. Furthermore, all countries evolve. As much as Singapore has evolved from our Straits Settlements history, Malaysia has evolved too from its colonial past. What people may find regrettable is that both countries have evolved in different directions, and we’re further apart than we were before.
I honestly don’t even believe that we’re further apart than before. I would contend that Singapore has always been significantly different from Malaya. In my opinion, this fiction of historical similarity came from comparing urban Singapore with the few urbanised towns of British Malaya where the Chinese were the majority. But using the urban centres of Malaya for comparison does no justice to the greater parts of the peninsula that remained predominantly Malay. Today, you could compare the highly modern, westernised, cosmopolitan parts of Singapore with the highly modern, westernised, cosmopolitan parts of Kuala Lumpur and say, hey, there’s not a lot of difference between Singapore and Malaysia after all. But that would be quite unrepresentative sampling.
The fiction of historical similarity comes from selective memory. Without this fiction, the argument that we’re drifting apart does not stand scrutiny. We’ve been apart for nearly 200 years; whether the trend is this way or that, the issue is too complex to reduce to any single measure.
Singapore was peopled very differently from Malaya, thus we’ve always been different
Why do I say we’ve been apart for nearly 200 years? Because Singapore has been peopled quite differently from Malaya, with all the implications that brings to social and political dynamics. While the inhabitants of Singapore’s fishing villages in 1819 were about 150 persons who were predominantly Orang Laut, a people of Malay stock, within seven years, by 1826, the Chinese had become the largest ethnic group. By the 1840s, they had become the majority with an influx of Chinese labourers, where previously it was mostly traders who came.
Here are the census figures I found from this website, which cites a book Statistics of the colonies of the British empire by Robert Montgomery Martin:
The census of 1833 is shown below:
Basically, everybody living in Singapore today are immigrants or descendants of immigrants, and in the first 10 – 20 years after the founding of modern Singapore, they came from these places:
The striking thing is how little has changed. We continue to receive immigration from China, India and around Southeast Asia. And historically, we’ve had as strong, if not stronger, economic links with and immigration from the Indonesian islands, than with/from the peninsula.
I would also add that for most of our history, the Chinese community in Singapore has maintained relationships with China. Our civil society had links with Chinese civil society; our philanthropists often went back to China to do good work. When Sun Yat Sen worked to overthrow the Qing dynasty, Singapore was one of his revolutionary bases because he could find support here. Except for a hiatus between the 1950s and the 1980s when China closed itself off from the world, there has been a thick skein of linkages between the Chinese here and China. We are just re-establishing what has historically been the norm.
Malaysia’s Chinese dimension is somewhat different in that it has always been the activity of a minority, albeit a large and influential one, hence it’s more like Thailand’s Chinese dimension, or Burma’s or the Philippines’.
Singapore’s Chinese dimension is almost our main story from long ago. Our chief colouration has been Chinese for as long as say, the chief colouration of modern Australia has been white Anglo-saxon (or British stock); the leading cities of Australia were founded in roughly the same period as Singapore — Singapore’s yellowness is as old as Australia’s whiteness. To get a better perspective of how old is our Chinese colouration, consider this: When the Chinese became a majority in Singapore, the Tokugawa shoguns were secure in their rule over a Japan that was closed to the outside world. When the Chinese became a majority in Singapore, the Turkish Sultan was the sovereign over Baghdad, Basra, Algiers, Tunis, Cairo and much of present-day Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia. There was still a Mughal monarch in Delhi, but no country on the map called Germany. When the Chinese became a majority in Singapore, California was still a part of Mexico, with Spanish as its lingua franca, Hawai’i was an independent kingdom and Alaska was part of the Russian empire. If you see those worlds as a very long time ago, then you have to acknowledge that Singapore has been mainly Chinese for a long, long time too.
Having said that, Singapore has never been entirely Chinese either. From our earliest days, we’ve been the meeting point with other peoples from India, Southeast Asia, the Arab world and of course, the West, each of these regions adding to our social mix. That this continues today only shows how little has changed.
Why we’re misled
Then why is there the (mis)perception that we’re becoming more Chinese? I would attribute this to the way the People’s Action Party, which has formed the government since 1959, speaks of the 1950s and 1960s as the beginning of the real modern Singapore. They do this to burnish their own achievements and play down the foundations — and counter models — that others before them have created. The problem with using the 1950s and 1960s as Year Zero is that those were atypical times for Singapore. That was a period when China was isolated from us (and from much of the world) and the notion of merger with Malaya (to create Malaysia) was in the air. The myth of similarity with Malayan society was created to support the latter agenda.
As history proved, our societies were so dissimilar, it was an unhappy marriage and we had to separate within two years. The last few decades has seen Singapore reverting to type, rebuilding our relationships with Indonesia, China, India and farther afield. We are not drifting away from our Malayan template. We’ve always been different; we were never really Malayan.